Homecoming and the Value of Ritual in Personal Practice
It is mid-September, and outside my window the tall grasses have browned, their golden seed heads waving gently in the late afternoon breeze. I can see the green of the aspen leaves beginning to change their colour, and fall to the ground. The days have been slowly shortening since midsummer, but it is always right around this time of year, early autumn, that I can actually feel the way in which the tides have turned, moving us into the waning phase of the year. The changing light and cooler temperatures always seem to inspire within me a desire to return. This sense of returning is something that I have always felt very strongly at this time of year, and I don’t think the feeling is unique to me, I believe that many of us feel it.
To me, it feels like a longing. A longing to come home.
Nostos is an ancient Greek/Homeric word that signifies both the homeward journey, as well as the longing for home. It is the root of our modern word nostalgia, which we often think of as a desire for a time in our past or a place that we have known. It is hard for me to put into words what it is I feel at this time of year, but this concept of nostos seems to capture the essence of my feelings well. It is almost as if the thinning veils of this season bring memories and dreams forward into the waking world, reminding me of long held desires that I have somehow forgotten. In the same way that I can see both the joy of summer and the promise of winter in the aspen tree outside my window, this season feels like a window in time, one that calls me to come back to myself, to the places I have known, and to the rituals that give my life meaning.
There are many rituals that are associated with this time of year, such as the rituals of harvest. The gathering of foods that we have grown and the time spent preparing them for storage. There is the ritual of “going back to school”, of returning to a rhythm that measures our days and (hopefully) offers nourishment to our minds, and of course the ritual of pulling out our winter clothes, those favourite scarves and sweaters that make us feel cosy and slowly begin to replace the sundresses and bathing suits of summer. These simple rituals have a way of grounding us in time, and place. They bring us back to the present moment while also allowing us to locate ourselves within an ever-flowing cycle of time that is familiar.
As a yoga teacher for many years, I always noticed the way the studio would fill once again at this time of year. I was able to witness that many people feel a desire to come back to regular routines that included more self-care and personal practice after the more socially extroverted season of summer. I believe this return to personal practice also represented a desire to come back into the body and to deepen a sense of mindfulness once again.
In the summer the beauty of the growing world naturally draws my senses outwards, whereas in the fall my inner world comes alive and my desire to lean in and listen deeply is enhanced.
There are many rituals that are meaningful to me at this time of year, some of which I celebrate with my family and some of which are important to me as an individual. Meditation is one of those practices. My personal practice of meditation is a ritual that feeds me in many ways. It calms and grounds me, it supports me in deepening my relationship with myself, and to the present moment, and it strengthens my ability to be receptive, to listen, to feel, and to witness. Perhaps it is this witnessing quality that is the key to why I am called back to my meditation practice so profoundly at this time of year. The autumn season is a brief season that is characterized by transition, and as I mentioned earlier it is also one in which I feel time and memory move in different ways. When I sit in meditation I am able to slow down enough to feel the emotions, hear the stories, and see the images that this season seems to evoke within me. Autumn is a precious season to me, and the practice of meditation helps me to ground myself within it.
As a teacher, I have heard many people express the fact that they are drawn to meditation, and yet have trouble maintaining a consistent practice. There are many reasons why we may struggle with this, and I won’t go into all of them here, but one thing I do want to focus on is the question of what consistent practice might actually mean, as well as discussing what I see as the value of ritual in regards to practice.
Often we are taught that having a consistent practice means that we do it every day, and often in a similar or prescribed way. When we fail to do our practice every day, we often equate it with a sense of personal failure, a lack of commitment, devotion or will on our part. As a long time student of yoga & meditation, and as a teacher, I personally do not subscribe to the idea that practice must be done daily, or in a prescribed manner, in order to be potent. As I have said many times before it is the relationship that I have with my practice that is most meaningful to me, not the form it takes or my ability to maintain it in a very specific way, because these things change. As they should. Just as the seasons change, bringing with them different qualities of energy and intention, so should your practice shift and flow. There was a time in my life when I approached my practice with rigid discipline, and there was some value in that to be sure for it supported me in gaining momentum and a sense of commitment. But I also remember the time when I began to trust my relationship to practice enough that I could allow myself space for those seasons when my passion waned or my discipline faltered- and I believe that it was then that I knew practice would always be part of my life, no matter what. In trusting my relationship to practice I could release the fear or self-criticism that often drove my discipline, and begin to cultivate a truer sense of devotion and love for my practice. It is this love that I believe will bring us back to practice, again and again, no matter what.
The other thing that will bring us back to practice is meaningful ritual.
Ritual is something that humans do in order to bring greater meaning and presence to an activity. Ritual is a practice that calls us to attention, and if it is repeated often enough it can re-connecting to a place of timelessness within, while also honoring the moment in which we find ourselves. Ritual has always played a part in my relationship to practice, whether it is the ritual of taking off my shoes at the studio door, chanting the Ashtanga Yoga opening chant at a specific time each morning, or lighting a candle before I sit down to meditate, each of these rituals are doorways, portals through which I could enter back into this relationship, no matter how long I had been away. I understand that many people have a somewhat negative association with the concept of ritual, as it may be tied into ideas around organized religion, dogma, or forced participation of some kind. But please consider the fact that ritual is one of the most universal of human acts and goes way beyond any limited concepts we may have about what it must look like or how it must be defined.
I love to create ritual, and most of the rituals I create are very simple. I practice daily, monthly and seasonal rituals, and none of them are prescribed. None of them are done out of a sense of duty or responsibility. None of them are done as a way of measuring my own worth or striving towards a sense of virtue or perfection. I do not practice ritual in order to make myself a better person, or a more exalted version of myself. I practice ritual because it feels good and it wakes me up to the beauty of my life. Which is the same reason I practice yoga and meditation. In my mind, and in my life, ritual & practice are not separate; they are one and the same.
If you, like me, feel a desire to return to practice during this season of the year I offer you a few suggestions in regards to creating rituals that can support you in rekindling your relationship to practice once again. These are all very simple rituals, and all very powerful, especially if done with full attention. If you have specific rituals that assist you in returning to practice in your life, please let me know, as I love to hear from you and to share in conversation about these things.
Homecoming: Simple Rituals for Returning to Practice & Deepening Relationship
Create a dedicated space for practice in your home. This does not need to be an entire room, just a corner or space within your house that feels good. Returning to the same space helps you to ritualize your practice. For many years I did not live in a big enough home to leave my yoga mat & meditation cushion out, so I simply kept them in a basket near the place I chose to practice, and once I laid them out that space became mine, even if it was only for the duration of my practice.
Create sacred space, no matter where you are. Creating sacred space can be as simple as laying down your yoga mat in your chosen space, to lighting incense or setting up an altar. When I travel I always bring something from my home practice space to support me in creating sacred space no matter where I am.
Remember the power of intention & conscious invocation. Another way of creating sacred space, on an internal level, is to open your practice with some quality of invocation. This simple act becomes a threshold between your ordinary routines and the ritual of your practice.
Close with gratitude. Just as opening the circle of practice is worthy of a moment of attention, so it is with closing. Even if you are only practicing for a few minutes, your practice will have more impact if you open and close it consciously. This can be as simple as placing your hands to your heart for a moment of gratitude- it is a gift to be able to practice, even if it is only for five minutes- or it may be a more formal closing chant or prayer that has meaning to you. At the very least always give yourself a moment or two of stillness at the end of your practice in which to witness what is arising before you move back into your day.
Keep it simple, and make it yours. I think that the most important part of creating rituals that will enrich your life is to make them your own. Don’t be afraid of doing it wrong. Trust yourself and follow your own creative intuition. I have found that the simplest practices are the ones that stick- lighting a specific type of incense that I only use for meditation, bowing to my cushion before I sit, or placing my hands on my heart for three deep breaths while I re-connect to my intention- it is these rituals that help me to return over and over again.
If you enjoyed this article and want more support in returning to your own home practice of meditation this fall please join me for my next 30 Day Illumination: Meditation Challenge. We will begin on the new moon of Sept 19th, the perfect day in which to start again. The focus of the program is on building our relationship to practice by meditating each day for a short period of time, thereby creating enough momentum and experience to support a home practice that we can self-initiate. You can learn more about the program here.
Autumn blessings to you!